"David Bowie"
By Beppe Colli
Mar. 17, 2013

And so, David Bowie managed to give us a big surprise, just like in the old days. Of course, it has to be said that this time the odds were definitely in his favour, starting with a ten years' silence that was bound to amplify whatever news about a new release were leaked (quite a few writers have wondered aloud whether a new Bowie album coming just two or three years after his previous, and decidedly unmemorable, one would have received the same degree of attention). There's also the "secrecy clause" that forced all those who worked on this project to keep mum, which of course was a very important ingredient for a successful operation (not sure if it's strictly true, this one, however:  it has been said that Robert Fripp's partial disclosure of a new Bowie album taking shape is the main reason for Fripp's non-appearance on said album).

It goes without saying that "strategic planning" is the name of the game here: first, the news; then, a nostalgic-themed video; then, the album art; then, some more news directly from the mouth of trusted producer Tony Visconti; then, a second, more active-looking, video; then, the album tracks streaming on iTunes; then, having the vinyl go on sale ten days after the digital edition(s); then, having the album go on sale at different dates in various markets; and so on. Then, of course, it was time for the big Sony muscle to work wonders: I've rarely seen newsstands windows populated by multiple editions of the same person, magazines and newspapers doing their best to help. For an artist who stopped moving huge quantities about thirty years ago, and who has quite successfully managed to survive first as a concert attraction, and then as a "celebrity", this is no easy feat.

But Sony's big muscle is not the only ingredient at work here, the whole being decidedly more complex than one's first impression. Many times, on Forums and blogs, I read something along the lines of "I really want this album to be good". Which in a way is the perfect epitome of "fandom". But...

It has to be said that this time Bowie has managed to resuscitate that unmistakable feeling of "discovery" that's so typical of the Sixties - and, though a tiny bit less, of the Seventies -, a feeling which has almost completely disappeared in our present age, with the Web, YouTube, and those social networks such as Facebook and MySpace (all stuff that, provided I'm not mistaken, did not really exist at the time of Bowie's last released album before The Next Day).

It's not that managers, record companies, and publicists were eager to have their artists hidden somewhere! It's just that there were only a few outlets available. And while the publicity machine worked full-time when it came to big names such as The Beatles, Dylan, and The Stones (also the "Boy Bands" of the time - but who took those seriously?), it was not unusual for one to listen to a new single on the radio about which one knew nothing; or, in a record shop, having one's hands on a new album whose release had not been announced - and that had yet to be reviewed. It was precisely at this moment that the debate was declared to be officially opened, ears straining to "get" the lyrics, and all those secrets that only attentive listening sessions could reveal.

So, the paradox here is that, while in the past buying an album was the real starting point, today the moment of purchase is the last step of a very long process whose nature is strictly inflationary, with those various source releasing more and more information with increasing earliness. The unintended consequence is that buyers get to be more and more satiated and fatigued before they get to spend their cash. Which, of course, is not too big a problem when spending one's cash is the only option that's available to the consumer.

But there's another side to this coin. Though he's only a bit younger, Bowie was a main actor in a musical "cleavage" - i.e., "Glam" - which took place quite a long time after The Beatles, Dylan, and The Stones came to fame, and so he was a main figure for the "tail" end of Boomers, but mostly for their younger brothers and sisters. So it's only logical that the unpleasant sense of mortality that Boomers know too well by now has now become a reality for their younger counterparts, who have reacted strongly to Bowie's "resurrection" after ten years, now that he has not only managed to release a new album, but an album that can be listened to with the same pleasure that's usually reserved for his undisputed masterpieces.

(Let's also ponder the fact that the death of Kevin Ayers has provoked an echo - even an obituary in The New York Times! - which is impossible to comprehend outside a cultural framework that has him as a main figure of an important subculture, with no real attention given to the number of units he sold during his lifetime.)

But there's more. Among those "serious artists", Bowie is one of the last still standing who can act as a "glue" for a vast quantity of people. This is a point that's very often misunderstood, as it's easy to see on many Forum threads. While some long for the time when "everybody was exposed to the same stuff" - which implies there are "shared memories": the cultural objects that were consumed at the same time - others invariably make fun of them, saying "but how can one long for the time when one was had no choice but to listen to the same radio station - which didn't even broadcast The Velvet Underground?".

It's a solid objection - which totally misses the point. As the process of fragmentation goes on, those objects that once acted as "glue" become more and more important, since they gave people an identity that came from the outside. Those "glue" object were shared, and they were also (relatively speaking) "impermanent" - in fact, we still remember them - in an age where individual atomization was still low.

All this stuff should work as a good explanation for the vast quantity of attention Bowie's new album, The Next Day, has received, all those reviews (many of them can be accessed through Metacritic), and all the activity of various Forums and blogs.

Most reviews were quite superficial, as it's the norm these days. Plus, late news and the need to produce copy all of a sudden, are not the best ingredients when one wants to make good work.

Not a single review I've read mentions the quality of the sound of the album. All my sources on the Web tell of a "dynamic range" equal to 6 (usually expressed as DR6), which looks quite low even by today's standards (I have to say that I regard values such as DR9 - DR11 on recent albums by Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, and The Ben Folds Five, to be far from scandalous, but not perfect, either), and whose compression seems to be destined to produce quite fatiguing listening sessions. Funny thing, the DR6 value appears to be common to both the CD and the digital files on sale at iTunes and HDTracks; hence, the compression applied at the mastering stage is supposed to be also on the vinyl album (still not on sale at the time of this writing).

Those "strange subtleties" apart, most Bowie reviews I've read did not pay too much attention to the album's music proper, those "biographic/human" aspects coming to the fore, the discussion about lyrics taking center stage.

A good example is the writing (which I'd call "a review", except for the fact that I learned otherwise) penned by Simon Reynolds which appeared on US newspaper The New York Times, on March 6, 2013, under the title The Singer Who Fell To Earth. An article I had not seen, but of whose existence I was made aware thanks to a discussion that appeared on Rockcritics, the precious source of a lot of information that after a long pause editor Scott Woods decided to re-start.

With a clear, transparent Bowie touch, Woods gave the title Sound vs. Vision? to the discussion which, on March 11, 2013, had its starting point in a comment by Steven Ward, who expressed his disappointment about the fact that in the above-mentioned piece Simon Reynolds made almost no mention of music. As a 180 opposite, Woods mentioned a review by Phil Freeman, which appeared on Burning Ambulance.

I was greatly surprised to see Simon Reynolds himself posting, writing that his piece was not intended to be a review, but "a piece", whose identity and function were vastly different

Reynolds then went on, giving readers the proper conceptual framework to his thought. Here I'll quote him verbatim, and at length: "On the subject of describing in detail what musically occurs in a track, well, there is an argument that this is less relevant than ever now that everyone can hear for themselves. The album was streaming on iTunes before the piece was handed in. And other newspapers rushed out their track by track insta-reviews within hours of its being available to them the previous week. If you want to find out what the record sounds like, before you buy, it's not hard."

Reynolds's reasoning looked quite inadequate to me. So it was with great pleasure that I replied: "I think there's a vast difference between a review and 'describing in detail what musically occurs in a track'. Countless people I know consider music criticism a thing of the past precisely because nowadays anybody can listen for him/herself, and make up his/her own mind. But music criticism doesn't stop at description, of course: it also traces musical connections, – something which the average reader is usually not equipped to do."

While I was having a look at a "Bowie" folder I have in my computer I happened to find a few old articles by Paul Du Noyer that I had almost forgotten about. (Du Noyer, of course, was the first editor of Mojo magazine, also the first editor of UK monthly The Word.) Du Noyer has a personal website, where he keeps stuff he wrote, interviews, etc. Also some extracts of raw transcriptions of interviews he did. Here's a brief excerpt I particularly like - he's talking to David Bowie:

They have asked me to do two halves, the new music and the Trilogy-Ashes to Ashes period. How does that sound to you?
We've covered that period so many times. However.


Now those old albums.
Go on then.

Has it been covered too much?
Well! If anyone needs some space filled they say "Let's do the Berlin stuff."

Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 17, 2013